Perfectionism as an artist can look like creative block, anxiety, procrastination, avoidance, or never feeling satisfied with your work. It slows things down, and it creates a lot of angst along the way. But it doesn’t have to be this way!
If you generally have high expectations of yourself, it’s likely that you recognize some perfectionistic tendencies in yourself. And you’re not alone: many artists recognize both high achieving and perfectionistic tendencies in themselves.
But here’s something to remember:
You can challenge yourself and achieve your artistic goals, without the stress of perfectionism.
In other words, being a high-achiever and being a perfectionist are not the same thing!
With perfectionism, you feel fear around making a “mistake” or “failing” at your art. This fear is what can lead to paralysis and procrastination.
If avoidance is one of your superpowers (I’m looking at myself here!), a perfectionistic mindset might be behind that reluctance to get started with your art.
Below are five tips for dealing with perfectionism as an artist.
1) Redefine Success Each Day
It’s easy to feel overwhelmed if you expect to create something magnificent every day. Instead, take control of what success looks like each day. Literally tell yourself, out loud or in your head, “Today is a success if I get just these things done.” Anything extra is a bonus!
One day, it might be getting some base color down on a canvas, or writing for thirty minutes. Another day, it might be completing a few tasks, and make sure they are measurable. For instance, “Today I will work in my sketchbook for half an hour, and send two emails about those courses I want to enroll in.”
Later, when you’ve accomplished what was on your success list, tell yourself (again, out loud or in your head) “Today was a success!”
How does defining success on your terms decrease perfectionism?
By separating yourself from the idea that only a finished product is a success, you can get unstuck from perfectionistic thinking. Instead, you are providing yourself with positive reinforcement for making progress.
After all, any big success (an art show, a book published) is made up of thousands of small steps taken each day. Recognize these daily steps for the successes that they are, and you will likely find it easier to make progress.
2) Make Creating a Habit
If you incorporate creating into your daily routine, it loses some of its gravity over time. When it becomes a habit, you cultivate an attitude that making art is something you just do, regardless of the outcome.
Making your art practice into a habit is no different than forming other habits. It involves setting up a system you can fall back on, that makes the desired behavior as easy to do as possible.
Turning your art into a habit:
• Create cues to remind you, like leaving your pens and sketchbook out on a table. Or, at the end of one work period, stick a post-it note on your fridge with a question for yourself about your project. “Is there a better citation for x in this chapter?” Or: “More blue, any orange? Work on line.”
• Remove any obstacles to getting started. For example, if you have to pack and unpack your materials every time you work, that is a barrier to getting started. See if you can create a place, even if it’s small, to keep your materials handy. Another possible obstacle is lack of time, so schedule it into your daily routine as if it were an appointment.
Making creativity a habit removes, or at least decreases, expectations of perfection. Instead, it’s just something you spend time doing.
The best book for building solid habits is Atomic Habits, by James Clear. I highly recommend it.
3) Cultivate Rituals
Have a ritual when you start creating that is nourishing and feels good to you. It may be filling buckets with clean water, sweeping the floor, sorting pens, or getting a cup of coffee or tea.
There is no wrong answer here. Use your imagination, and think for a minute about what you already do, as well as what you aren’t doing but might feel great. I like to organize art supplies before starting a new project, and queue up a playlist on Spotify. A friend of mine does a few yoga stretches before sitting down to write.
How do rituals help with perfectionism?
There are a couple of things at play here. First, your rituals get your body moving in case you are paralyzed by the fear that accompanies perfectionism. Second, after enough repetition, the comfort of your familiar routine helps train your brain to shift into its more relaxed and creative headspace. You can focus on enjoying your creative process instead of doing something “perfect”. And speaking of process….
4) Focus on Process over Product
If you are feeling paralyzed by perfectionism and fear, engage in some easy process exercises. The idea here is to get moving, without regard for the finished product.
Here are some ideas for focusing on process over product:
• Throw it away! Tell yourself that the finished product can go right into the trash when you’re finished. You may or may not decide to throw something away in the end, and that is up to you. But giving yourself permission at the outset to destroy something relieves you of any self-imposed pressure to create anything perfect.
• Do something repetitive. See how many different lines you can make with a certain tool. Spend ten minutes writing about something that has nothing to do with your current project.
• Break some rules. There is no wrong way to engage in process art. Instead, it is all about the experience of making it, and not the finished product. It doesn’t have to resemble anything you’ve ever seen or done before. In fact, it doesn’t have to be recognizable at all! Process art eschews boundaries and its only requirement is that you enjoy your creative process.
Why does process work help with perfectionism?
Process work relieves pressure related to outcome. It frees you up to take risks and create without an eye towards how things will look in the end.
The outcome of process art may surprise you sometimes. Recently, I was done painting and wanted to use up some excess paint on my palette. I smeared it carelessly on some paper. This was all process, with no focus on the product. But I liked the outcome so much that I cut the paper up into several pieces and put them in frames! Without thinking about how things would look, my brushstrokes and marks were much freer and spontaneous.
5) Write Down Your Fears
Write down what you’re afraid of, and brainstorm ways to deal with your fears. These fears are typically rooted in limiting beliefs that can be changed. Here are a few common fears I hear from clients who struggle with perfectionism, and my response:
• “I don’t have anything original to say.” Ha, me neither! And yet, we do. For example, this is not the only article on perfectionism in artists out there. But my contribution on this subject will resonate with some people in ways that other articles don’t, and vice versa. You don’t need to reinvent the wheel with your art. You just need to express your authentic self. Do your own thing, and what is original about you will leak out all over your audience. (Ew, that sounds gross, sorry.)
• “So many artists are better than I am.” Yeah, the odds are slim that you are the absolute best at what you do, if such an objective measure even exists. But so what?! Does this mean there should only be one person who makes what you make, because they have been deemed the best? Remember, no one is better than you are at being YOU, and expressing what you express. The world needs your voice and your contribution.
• “If I can’t do it right, I shouldn’t even try.” This is an example of classic all-or-nothing thinking. In fact, there are a host of cognitive distortions in this statement, that I may unpack in an entirely separate article! The defeatist tone underlying this fear sounds like overwhelm. Take some serious care of yourself, precious person. You can turn this thought around to something that sounds more like, “There is no right or wrong, I’m just here to have some fun.” There is joy in you, waiting to emerge.
Why addressing your fears helps with perfectionism:
Working with your fears and self-limiting beliefs is a form of self-therapy. You are delving into the thoughts and feelings that hold you back, and working on modifying them to feel less fearful.
So be brave, and look directly at those parts of you that engage in all or nothing thinking. Shower some love on the parts of you that hide out in fear when it the pressure feels like too much. Get acquainted with those parts of you that reflexively catastrophize, be nice to them and remind them that no punishment awaits you when you express yourself.
Therapy can also help you to better understand your deeper reasons behind feeling the pressure to be perfect. If you find that you’re still struggling, therapy may be a good option to give you even more tools and insight to overcome perfectionism.